By Uditha Devapriya –
He was born 96 years ago. He turns 96 today. There probably are a good many words one can use in describing him. Probably only one or two of them can describe him well. In any case, the worth of the man goes beyond words. Icons are like that. Words, sentences, even essays or books, can’t do justice. There is an extra something which eludes easy capture, which can’t be framed in an essay, much less an article. Still, if there’s probably one characteristic which sets him apart from the rest, it has to be this: humility. That is probably the rarest quality a human being can have. He has it. In plenty.
He is known for his films, of course. He is known for other things too, but they are marginal. 20 films over five decades isn’t much, but given the quality of his stories and fidelity to life they show, it’s hard to think of a greater director here. Period. The truth is that Lester James Peries is a giant, and like all giants, he takes accolade with a pinch of salt. Laurels are unneeded in his case, hence. Praise too. He is a figurehead, someone we can all point at and be proud of. As Sri Lankans. And human beings. No mean feat, that.
I first got to know him through his works, obviously. Rarely has a director given so much to his country. Lester has. Between Rekava and Ammawarune, there is a subtle, almost hard to notice gap. But this gap is bridgeable. Inasmuch as his films are all different from one another, there is something that brings them together. It’s certainly beyond my task to examine what it is. I can only try.
Tissa Abeysekara once wrote something about cultural icons. He claimed that some of them had to search for roots to validate their creativity, including Lester. But while this conflict between expression and the need for roots persisted in these artists, they never really made it a source of their creativity. Which is true, in a way. Perhaps we can apply it to Lester.
He did not really live through what he filmed. His childhood was insulated from his country. As the years went by, however, and like countless artists who clamoured after their beginnings, he persisted in making his works as authentic as it was possible. He succeeded.
The gap between author and creation is present no matter what the art-form is. Even in films, there is a world between the film and the director. True to form (and his humility), Lester acknowledged this when he stated that the filmmaker is comparable to an orchestra conductor. To him, cooperation is more important than the need to assert himself. Perhaps this distances him from every other “giant” in world cinema, Satyajit Ray included.
Is that what makes his films so unique? Yes, but not always. So what is it then? Why can’t we come up with a love story half as delicate (and authentic) as Golu Hadawatha? A story that relied so much on a thin plot as did Delovak Athara? Or a story that was as macabre and yet “classical” (in terms of mood and plot) as Nidhanaya?
Perhaps he was trying to reflect himself in them all. Or perhaps he was trying to make a point, that (as he once put it) “one does not make films in Sinhala or Tamil, but in the language of cinema”. I don’t know. All I know is that he succeeded in this. His films were limited in some respects of course. But in his attempt to reach out, to reconcile himself to the people he so delicately portrayed, he was closer to home than anyone else.
Humility. Yes, I almost forgot. He has it. Humility, after all, can make a man laugh at himself. He does that. That may be what best defines the man, and brings him closer to home. Which is not to say that he underestimates himself. But he maintains a rare sort of equanimity that cannot be defined. Ever.
From Rekava to Ammawarune, he had his share of ups and downs. By his own view, he was a “prestige failure”, at a time when our cinema was trying to unshackle itself of any commercial, over-the-top tendencies. As a (silent) tribute to the cinema he was trying to escape perhaps, he nonetheless included certain unnecessary, frilled sequences in his films. They irritate the viewer, admittedly. But there’s a reason why they are there in the first place.
Take the sequence of Sugath meeting Dammi’s mother and sister in Golu Hadawatha. For the first time in the film, we feel an unnecessary weight, especially when Dammi’s younger sister meets Sugath. There is comedy here, unneeded and frilled, which takes away an otherwise emotionally charged sequence. All his films have scenes like this. They take away and never add. But in the end, if we are to judge the director’s worth, they must be watched and absorbed. Why?
Because they all ring true. Yes, they are melodramatic. Overweight too. But they are needed, and precisely because they speak volumes about the people being depicted. None of Lester’s characters really break into hysterics or express their sorrows publicly. A wink here, a slight smile there, can express what a scream or plaintive cry never will. Through this, just like Satyajit Ray, he maintained a tremendous grace under pressure which differentiated his films to the last. The world venerates him. For this reason. But that’s not so important right now.
What’s important is that he’s still with us. As the only living artist from “1956”, whose works bridged the gap between an anglicised past and a country in search of roots, he is alive. He always will be, I suspect. So much so that every time we watch a film of his, live through the experience stamped on it, and realise that notwithstanding his self-imposed ideological parameters (he has never experimented in political cinema, thankfully) he has gone beyond anyone else in filming our sorrows and joys, we will remember that.